From Scopes to Dover-14: Religion gets edged out of the schools

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Following their failure to have the separation of church and state incorporated as an amendment into the US constitution, proponents of separation in the late 19th century then shifted strategy, urging changes in state constitutions and arguing that the federal constitution had implicitly advocated separation all along and that what was necessary was a reinterpretation of its key clauses. A broad coalition of forces – including Baptists, Jews, atheists, Masons, the Ku Klux Klan – supported this idea, some to prevent the encroachment into government by particular religious sects (especially Catholics), others because they really did want all religion out of government institutions. (Separation of Church and State (2002), Philip Hamburger, p. 481) Thus the idea of the separation of church and state, although not explicitly stated in the federal constitution, became widely accepted as a basic underlying principle of the country.

Because the idea of separation had gained considerable popularity by the time of World War I, state supreme courts in several states had started questioning the practice of Bible reading in public schools (Hamburger, p. 369). Use of the Bible in public schools started decreasing to such an extent that parents started becoming concerned that the public schools were providing too little or no religious instruction at all. A Baptist minister in 1919 put it this way, that the tendency “toward the complete secularization of education . . .had grown out of an overemphasis of our doctrine of separation of religious freedom.” He felt that Baptists “have been so insistent on the separation of church and state that we have almost completely separated education and religion to the serious detriment of both.” (Hamburger, p. 383)

Another Baptist summarized how this situation had come to pass:

Two forces, from opposite sides, have cooperated towards this general secularizing of our education. . .First, the Christian forces insisted on the absolute separation of Church and State, and thought of all religion in terms of church creeds and forms. Hence they set themselves against the teaching of Christianity in schools supported by public funds and controlled by boards of education. At the same time non-Christian influences were exerted by men who, like the churchmen, identified religion with the creeds of organized churches and felt that the churches would produce friction and confusion in the schools, would lay a hindering hand on freedom of thought and investigation. Thus the two operated together to eliminate religion from our education.” (Hamburger, p. 383)

This was the climate in which the Scopes trial took place in 1925 and explains the line of argument pursued by William Jennings Bryan. It was a time when teaching of the Bible had largely disappeared from schools. Rather that trying to directly challenge the by-then accepted idea of separation of church and state and reverse the secularization of education that had led to the Bible not being used in public schools, Bryan tried to use the separation idea to his advantage, arguing that evolution was not a scientific fact but an idea based on an atheist doctrine, and thus violated the idea of separation. This line of argument, that the theory of evolution is less a scientific theory than an atheist inspired belief structure akin to a religion, is still widely heard today.

To understand the legal developments after Scopes, recall that prior to 1925, the First Amendment was seen to apply restrictions only on the powers of the federal government. It was the 1925 Gitlow case that expanded the ‘free speech’ and ‘free press’ clauses to state and local governments by incorporating them under the Fourteenth Amendment.

Then in 1940, in the case Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, the right of Jehovah’s Witnesses to spread their message on a public street without seeking prior government approval was upheld unanimously by the US Supreme Court with the court agreeing with the Jehovah’s Witnesses that such restrictions violated the ‘free exercise’ of religion clause in the First Amendment, and that this clause was also explicitly applicable to the states under the Fourteenth Amendment. In Cantwell, the court even stated more expansively that “The fundamental concept of liberty embodied in that Amendment embraces the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment.. . .The First Amendment declares that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Fourteenth Amendment has rendered the legislatures of the states as incompetent as Congress to enact such laws.”

As the debate over evolution and religion continued after the Scopes trial ended, subsequent court cases can best be understood as being caused by attempts to put at least some religion back into schools by those who felt that separation of church and state had been interpreted too broadly to mean the separation of religion and state.

One key development centered on whether the ‘establishment clause’ was also binding on the states. Although the Supreme Court had stated that it was in the 1940 Cantwell case, only the ‘free exercise clause’ that had really been at issue in that case. The case that definitively settled the ‘establishment clause’ issue was in 1947 in Everson v. Board Of Education (330 U.S. 1).

Everson involved a challenge to the policy of a local school district in New Jersey to reimburse parents for the cost of bus transportation for their children to attend parochial schools. In a close 5-4 decision, the court ruled that doing this did not violate the idea of separation of church and state. The majority ruled that such actions fell into the category of maintaining the general welfare of its citizens and that carrying the idea of separation to such extremes so that no interaction at all could exist between the state and parochial schools might prevent the state from providing even police or fire or other minimal protections and services to those schools.

Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo Black said:

Measured by these standards, we cannot say that the First Amendment prohibits New Jersey from spending tax-raised funds to pay the bus fares of parochial school pupils as a part of a general program under which it pays the fares of pupils attending public and other schools. . . Moreover, state-paid policemen, detailed to protect children going to and from church schools from the very real hazards of traffic, would serve much the same purpose and accomplish much the same result as state provisions intended to guarantee free transportation of a kind which the state deems to be best for the school children’s welfare. . . Of course, cutting off church schools from these services so separate and so indisputably marked off from the religious function would make it far more difficult for the schools to operate. But such is obviously not the purpose of the First Amendment. That Amendment requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and nonbelievers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them.

At first, this ruling was seen as a major constitutional defeat for the principle of separation of church and state and Black, the author of the majority verdict, came in for severe criticism. Black has played an important role in the development of judicial doctrine on church-state relations and his history is interesting.

Black had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan in his native Alabama and had strongly supported its church-state separation policy. Before his elevation to the Supreme Court by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937, Black had been elected to the US Senate from Alabama in 1926 with strong support from the KKK and other groups that saw him as someone who would strengthen that separation. Conversely, his nomination to the Supreme Court had been especially criticized by Catholics who saw him as someone opposed to them. His ruling was thus seen as a let down by those supporters who had rallied to his defense against the Catholics. They viewed his decision as a sop to Catholics, an attempt to deflect charges of being anti-Catholic.

But although his Everson ruling was criticized by advocates of church-state separatism, his ruling actually laid the foundations for subsequent rulings that ever more firmly established the idea that religion and the state should stay separate because it was in the Everson case that the court explicitly ruled that the ‘establishment clause’ protections of the First Amendment were also binding on state and local governments by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Today virtually every protection in the entire Bill of Rights is assumed to apply also to state and local governments by virtue of the Fourteenth Amendment.)

Even more importantly, Everson case also set general guidelines on what the establishment clause should be taken to mean, and explicitly inserted Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation between church and state’ into its ruling, thus making that famous phrase part of constitutional law for the first time. Writing for the court, Justice Hugo Black wrote what has since become a major part of the framework for interpreting the establishment clause:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church-attendance or non-attendance. No tax, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause … was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”

As Larson points out (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 249), after Everson, “the Court quickly began purging well-entrenched religious practices and influences from state-supported schools.” The precedent set in this case rapidly led to a whole series of Supreme Court decisions, several of them authored by Black, creating greater distance between religion and state, and especially removing religion from schools.

Hamburger suggests (p. 462) that Black was well aware that this would happen and that his Everson ruling that seemingly favored the interests of parochial Catholic schools was a shrewd move on his part, giving a small victory to parochial schools and thus mollifying those critics who had suspected that he was anti-Catholic because of his Ku Klux Klan past, while at the same time laying the foundation for advancing the idea of separation of church and state which he strongly supported but which Catholics felt was aimed at restricting them.

Next: Religious dominos fall in rapid succession

POST SCRIPT: V for Vendetta

One of my favorite films is <a href= for Vendetta, in which the key character is based on Guy Fawkes, whose plot to blow up the British parliament is remembered in England every November 5th. Of course, as usual I forgot the anniversary but Norm Nason of Machines Like Us kindly reminded me of the day and sent me a link to a clip from the film where V gives a talk to the British public warning them of how they have been lulled into accepting an authoritarian system. Replace the British Chancellor with George Bush and you will see an almost exact parallel with what is happening in the US now, where a deliberately frightened public trades away its freedoms for a fraudulent sense of safety.

As the film says: People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.

From Scopes to Dover-13: Rising calls for the separation of church and state

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

At the dawn of the 19th century, while explicit support for specific religious instruction to advance a particular sectarian view was frowned upon, the fact that almost all the colonialists were Protestants meant that much of what we would now view as religious education was seen by them as simply ordinary education. Their view of the purpose of schooling was closely tied with teaching morals and values and these were believed to be religion-based. So while people were cool to the idea of the state supporting specific churches, they did not view a generic Protestant Christian ideology as representing a ‘church’. It was seen as merely the personal beliefs of individuals which just happened to be shared by most people, and thus were ‘natural’.

Since the schools were under local control and thus represented relatively homogeneous groups of Protestants, no challenges emerged to such tacit support for religion in those communities. As Philip Hamburger writes in Separation of Church and State (2002, p. 220), even in New York City, which was more diverse than the rest of the nation, the idea of a generic Protestantism as not being explicitly religious but merely neutral held sway.

Since the early 1820s, when it first acquired authority to distribute public school funds, New York’s City Council had denied such funds to all sectarian institutions, including Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic schools. Instead, it gave most of its funds to the schools run by the Public School Society – a privately operated nondenominational organization. Yet the ostensibly nonsectarian schools of the Public School Society had some broadly Protestant, if not narrowly sectarian, characteristics. One goal of the society was “to inculcate the sublime truths of religion and morality contained in the Holy Scriptures,” and its schools required children to read the King James Bible and to use textbooks in which Catholics were condemned as deceitful, bigoted, and intolerant.

Needless to say, Catholics did not share the view that this was a religiously neutral education, and as the number of Catholics in the city rose due to immigration from Ireland, they started pressing for public funds to create their own schools free of anti-Catholic bias and to teach their own brand of Christianity. But Catholics were widely seen at that time as being too much of a monolithic body, too subservient in their thinking to their priests and the Pope, and thus their allegiance to the new republic was seen as suspect. Some non-Catholics even went to the extent of suggesting that since the Catholic Church seemed to demand great obedience from its parishioners, such people had ceased to be independent thinkers and were thus not even worthy of being allowed to vote in a democracy. (Hamburger, p. 234-246)

Of course, when it was pointed out that the Public School Society still required students to read the Bible and other religious materials and thus could hardly claim to be religiously neutral, it “defended its position that its publicly supported schools were nonsectarian by offering to black out the most bigoted anti-Catholic references in the textbooks. It refused, however, to withdraw the King James Bible, which, although Protestant, no longer seemed to belong to any church.” (Hamburger, p. 223)

The request by Catholics for funding of their own schools was opposed as leading to an alliance of church and state. In fact it was to deny the demands by Catholics for the funding of their own schools that led to the idea of separation of church and state gaining popularity. Up to that point, people had largely viewed the founding principle of the country, as enshrined in its constitution and associated documents, as prohibiting a union of the state with an organized church. The idea of the separation of church and state was an idea contained in a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association in which he said: “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” (Hamburger, p. 1)

The latter view (creating a separation of church and state) was a much stronger statement than the former (preventing a union of church and state) and it started gaining ground in the mid-19th century onwards mainly as an argument to prevent Catholics from gaining funding for their own denominational schools.

This idea of separation (as opposed to preventing union) gained further ground when Pope Gregory XVI, in an encyclical published in 1832, condemned the doctrine of separation of church and state. This move backfired because it increased the fears of Protestants in America that the Catholics were seeking to eventually dominate the US, and thus increased support for the doctrine of separation of church and state as a way of limiting the ambition of Catholics. As I said before, the various Protestant sects could embrace this separation doctrine because they did not see themselves as acting as a single “church” but as individuals who happened to share a broad Protestant ethic. They thus excluded themselves from the ‘sectarian’ label and saw the separation of church and state as a way of maintaining the status quo.

Like so many other Protestants, Baptists desired to exclude any particular church from public institutions but welcomed Bible reading and other elements of Protestant religion, which seemed to be the faith of free individuals. In the 1870s, for example, although some Baptists protested the introduction of the Bible into public schools and argued that “the state had no right to teach religion,” most Baptists saw no reason to go so far. As one Baptist, George C. Lorimer, explained in 1877: “The position of the Bible in the schools is not the result of any union between Protestants and the State; nor was it secured by the political action of one denomination, or of all combined. The Church, as such, did not put it there, and the Church, as such, cannot take it away. Instead, the “people” put the Bible in the schools.” (Hamburger, p. 283-284)

So even as the idea of the separation of church and state was gaining popularity, it was not initially seen as a call for the separation of Christianity and the state. As is usually the case when a belief structure is ubiquitous, its adherents tend to see it as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ and ‘obviously’ true, and not merely one of a spectrum of possible views.

But as the idea of separation of church and state became more widely accepted, it was inevitable that people, especially those who did not share these common beliefs, would see the benefits of extending that concept to mean that there should be a complete separation of religion (including Protestant Christianity) and the state. As Hamburger points out, initial calls for this stronger separation took the form of arguing that this was what the Founding Fathers had desired but not explicitly provided for in the constitution, and thus there were calls for a constitutional amendment to firmly entrench this principle into law.

These calls for a constitutional amendment mandating the separation of church and state gained ground. As part of this drive, there were calls for the abolition of chaplains in publicly supported institutions, prohibiting the use of the Bible (either as a textbook or as a source of religious worship) in public schools, replacing religious judicial oaths with secular affirmations, abolishing tax exemptions for religious institutions, and so on. (Hamburger, p. 302-304) Even President Ulysses S. Grant urged stronger separation when he ran for reelection in 1875, advocating an amendment that would “[d]eclare Church and State forever separate and distinct, but each within its proper sphere.”

In a speech made in 1875 to the Convention of the Army of the Tennessee, Grant said that the country should “Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar appropriated for their support shall be appropriated for the support of any sectarian schools. Resolve that neither the state nor the nation, nor both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separated.”

The separation movement gained ground as members of the various Christian denominations saw it as a means of preventing any particular denomination, particularly Catholics, from gaining supremacy in teaching their particular doctrine to the exclusion of the others. The idea of an amendment to the US constitution implementing stronger separation reached its peak around 1875 but failed to come to fruition, and that plan was eventually abandoned. But it did achieve some results, with Congress passing laws requiring any new state seeking admittance to the union to have clauses in their state constitution mandating the separation of church and state.

Next: A shift in strategy.

POST SCRIPT: Levitation

I sometimes hear from people who have witnessed seemingly paranormal phenomena (such as ‘mind reading’) with their own eyes and are convinced that people with such powers exist. They assert that they would have detected any trickery. I am reminded of what magician James Randi said, that it is really easy to fool people, and the more well educated they are and the more confident such people are of their own smartness, the easier it becomes.

I like magicians. Apart from the fun of watching them do their tricks, such people are a useful reminder of how we must be cautious of taking at face value even the things we “see” with our own eyes unless it is under tightly controlled conditions supervised by people who know the world of trickery and illusions.

Here is Dutch magician Ramana doing a levitation trick.

You can read and see more about Ramana here and here.

Apparently Ramana also does ‘mind reading’.

From Scopes to Dover-12: The history of religion in US public schools

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

It is interesting to note that in 1925, the attempt that was being made by religious believers was to keep evolution from being taught in the schools because Biblical creation theories had already been eliminated. William Jennings Bryan was essentially arguing for two things: (1) If religion was not to be taught in schools, then neither should evolution; and (2) the community of taxpayers had the right to decide what children should be taught in schools. Bryan was arguing for the state to be allowed to ban the teaching of evolution since public school teachers were already prohibited from presenting the biblical view.
[Read more…]

From Scopes to Dover-11: The Scopes verdict appealed

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The Scopes ‘monkey trial’ came to an abrupt end on the eighth day, Tuesday, July 21, 1925.

The judge began the day by stopping the questioning of Bryan from continuing and ordered his previous day’s testimony stricken from the record. But the damage had been done since the point of the case, after all, was not to persuade the jury in the room but to score points to a wider nationwide audience. Darrow had exploited his line of questioning of Bryan to gain a major propaganda victory for science, in the full glare of the national media, by showing that religious beliefs like Bryan’s led to an intellectual cul-de-sac.

Following the judge’s ruling on ending Bryan’s testimony, the defense promptly rested its case and Darrow made a brief statement asking the jury to bring in a verdict of guilty. He told them:

As far as this case stands before the jury, the court has told you very plainly that if you think my client taught that man descended from a lower order of animals, you will find him guilty, and you heard the testimony of the boys on that questions and heard read the books, and there is no dispute about the facts. Scopes did not go on the stand, because he could not deny the statements made by the boys. I do not know how you may feel, I am not especially interested in it, but this case and this law will never be decided until it gets to a higher court, and it cannot get to a higher court probably, very well, unless you bring in a verdict.

The defense’s strategy all along had been to argue against the Butler Act on constitutional grounds in the appellate courts, hopefully all the way to the US Supreme Court. In order to have grounds for such an appeal they needed to have Scopes found guilty in the lower court. Since pleading guilty at the outset would not have allowed Scopes to appeal, he had to plead innocent and yet be convicted, which explains the seemingly strange request of a defense counsel asking the jury for a guilty verdict.

But there was an additional benefit by resting the case without presenting a closing statement for the defense and simply asking for a directed verdict of guilty. According to trial rules, the defense not making a closing statement meant that the prosecution could not make one either. The defense was executing a deliberate strategy to prevent the prosecution, especially Bryan, from having the last word and making its own closing statement. So rather than Bryan ending the case with the kind of grand, eloquent, and sweeping speech that The Boy Orator was famous for, the last impression that he left was his dismal performance on the witness stand. Darrow had outmaneuvered Bryan again.

The jury duly complied with Darrow’s request and after just a few minutes deliberation returned with the verdict, finding Scopes guilty. There then occurred a seemingly trivial bit of court business that would result later in the case not having the legal impact that had been sought. The jury said they had not decided on the size of the penalty and judge said he would impose the minimum sentence required by law, which was $100. The chief prosecutor said that he thought that Tennessee law required the jury, not the judge, to set the fine, but the judge said it was his understanding that as long as it was just the minimum fine, he could set it. All sides agreed to go along with this.

The case ended with both sides claiming victory, the prosecution getting a guilty verdict, the defense claiming that they showed the superiority of science over religion.

As epilogues to this part of the story, William Jennings Bryan died in his sleep just five days later, his death so soon after the grilling by Darrow giving him the air of a martyr and recapturing some of the momentum that the antievolution movement had lost because of the trial. Scopes accepted a scholarship offer to the University of Chicago and became a petroleum engineer. For most of the rest of his life he avoided the limelight and passed up speaking offers. Dayton, Tennessee returned to being a sleepy little town.

The case now went to appeal to the Tennessee Supreme Court. Many people on the defense side, including the ACLU, tried to have Darrow removed from the defense team for the appeal since they wanted the appeal to focus on the issue of free speech and feared that Darrow’s strong antipathy to religion would result in the religion issue dominating once again. But Darrow and his allies outmaneuvered them and he stayed on.

The Tennessee Supreme Court heard oral arguments in May 1926. There were many briefs filed on both sides, the state again arguing the majoritarian view that what the elected representatives decided was binding whatever its merits, basing its argument on a recent US Supreme Court judgment that had upheld compulsory school vaccinations because of the public good. The case for the state said, “What the public believes is for the common welfare must be accepted as tending to promote the common welfare whether it does in fact or not.” (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 214) The state also argued that the Butler Act was not meant to promote any sectarian religious belief but instead was designed to level the playing field in education, that since the Bible could not be taught in public schools, anti-Biblical theories should also not be taught. They asserted that those challenging the statute were doing so to advance atheistic views and referred to Darrow’s well-known opposition to religion to support their case.

The defense countered that “this theory would absolutely nullify constitutional government and inaugurate the dictatorship of the majority.” In oral arguments, defense counsel Arthur Garfield Hays said that the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution prevented the state from enforcing unreasonable laws and “Tennessee’s “absurd” antievolution statute violated this standard as much as a law against teaching Copernican astronomy would.” (Larson, p. 215)

Darrow argued a point that has continued to be debated to this day, that the anti-evolution statute in question was not designed to foster neutrality in education but that opposition to the theory of evolution essentially sprang from a religious foundation that was hostile to science, and thus any attempt to suppress its teaching was an attempt to advance religious views at the expense of science, and that this went counter to the purposes of public schools.

Even while the appeal was being made, the defense expected that the Tennessee Supreme Court would uphold the lower court conviction, and set about planning the appeal to the US Supreme Court, which is where they hoped to win the case on free speech grounds and thus advance individual liberties.

But in a surprise maneuver, the Tennessee Supreme Court did something that prevented the defense team from achieving its goal of having the Scopes trial serve as the first major victory for the ACLU in defense of free speech. In its ruling, the court first upheld the constitutionality of the state law saying that the Butler Act did not give any preference to any religion since it did not require teachers to teach anything specific. But it then overturned Scopes’ conviction on a technicality that neither side had raised in the appeal or objected to in the original trial, and that was that according to Tennessee law, the fine of $100 levied on Scopes should have been set by the jury and not the judge.

Since Scopes was now unexpectedly a man with no conviction against him, no further appeal was possible and this particular constitutional challenge ended with a whimper and not a bang, with no constitutional principle established. The issue of whether it was constitutional to ban the teaching of evolution in public schools was not resolved for another four decades, when the US Supreme Court ruled in the 1968 case of Epperson v. Arkansas, to be discussed later.

In fact, the Butler Act stayed officially on the Tennessee books, but not enforced, until 1967, when the threat of legal action was raised by another biology teacher. The state legislature then decided that having Tennessee associated with one Scopes-like spectacle was enough and the Act was finally repealed.

But while the Scopes trial did not set a legal precedent, the publicity surrounding it and the play and film depicting it ensured that ever since then it is never far from the minds of people who have had to grapple with the teaching of evolution in schools.

Next: The historical role of religion in US public schools

POST SCRIPT: Bob’s amazing mind reading ability

In a previous post, I described the funny TV sitcom from the 70’s called Soap. Bert’s son Chuck treated his even-present ventriloquist dummy Bob like he was real and eventually so did some of the others. Here is a clip from the show. Look at Bert’s wife Mary. She does not say much but Cathryn Damon was superb in the way she used facial expressions for comedic effect.

From Scopes to Dover-10: And on the seventh day, no one rested

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the Genesis account of creation, after six days spent in creating the universe, god rested on the seventh day. But in the Scopes trial, day seven (Monday, July 20) was when the fireworks occurred.

The written testimony prepared by experts over the weekend was accepted into the record, along with a two-hour reading of excerpts by defense counsel Arthur Garfield Hays. All of this was kept from the jury. It was then that the surprise event occurred that forever after defined the Scopes trial. Darrow said that he would call the prosecutor William Jennings Bryan as a (hostile) witness for the defense in the afternoon. Although the rest of the prosecution team saw no good coming from this and objected, Bryan relished the opportunity to have a verbal duel with Darrow, to fight for Christianity against the militant agnostic, and he said he would testify, provided he could put the defense team on the stand as well.
[Read more…]

From Scopes to Dover-9: The Scopes trial begins

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The 1925 Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee was brief, lasting just eight days, much of it involving legal wrangling over technicalities that took place with the jury out of the courtroom. There were only two occasions when Bryan and Darrow were able to make speeches and these occurred in the middle of the trial during legal skirmishes.

The legal backdrop to the Scopes case did not involve the US constitution. Recall that the First Amendment to the constitution (ratified as part of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791) says simply: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is important to realize that originally the First Amendment was considered to apply only to laws passed by the federal government, since the wording explicitly only barred Congress from passing any law that infringed on those rights. [Read more…]

From Scopes to Dover-8: Freedom of speech or science versus religion?

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

What is interesting about the 1925 Scopes ‘monkey trial’ case is that it was really fought on two levels, both of which have survived to this day. On the surface level, the legal arguments had little to do with the issue of inserting religion into the public schools. Bryan was arguing two points: (1) that the community, through their elected representatives, had the right to decide what should be taught in their local schools, and (2) that since the teaching of religious doctrines had already been eliminated from public schools, so should other unproven doctrines like evolution, especially since the latter doctrine undermined the former. As he said in his essay God and Evolution (New York Times, February 26, 1922, p. 84):

The Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies of religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the Bible cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit the teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?
. . .
Our opponents are not fair. When we find fault with the teaching of Darwin’s unsupported hypothesis, they talk about Copernicus and Galileo and ask whether we shall exclude science and return to the dark ages. Their evasion is a confession of weakness. We do not ask for the exclusion of any scientific truth, but we do protest against an atheist teacher being allowed to blow his guesses in the face of the student. The Christians who want to teach religion in their schools furnish the money for denominational institutions. If atheists want to teach atheism, why do they not build their own schools and employ their own teachers?

Bryan was trying to drive a wedge between what he felt were well-established scientific truths like the heliocentric model of the solar system, and unproven theories like evolution. Bryan was also advocating a majoritarian point of view, arguing that elected officials had the right to determine what was taught and to exclude the teaching of those things that were not scientific facts. Darrow and the ACLU, on the other hand, were arguing that this was an issue of academic freedom, that teachers should not be barred by law from teaching what they believed to be true. (Note that this is an interesting reversal from recent battles where it is the advocates of creationism who argue that not allowing the teaching of intelligent design in schools is a violation of the free speech rights of teachers. As we will see later, this switch has occurred because over time, as a result of several US Supreme Court decisions, the legal and constitutional issues involved have shifted considerably from those that were at issue in the Scopes trial.)

But beneath the surface level, there was clearly another level in which both Bryan and Darrow thought that the theory of evolution and religion did conflict, and this was the real fight that was relished by and sought for by both, to determine which worldview was true. This second front in the case caused some consternation to their respective allies, which consisted of state attorney general Tom Stewart for the prosecution and the ACLU for the defense.

The lead prosecutor Stewart wanted to try the case on a simple question of fact, whether Scopes had violated the law by teaching about human evolution. Hence he opposed the introduction of any scientific expert testimony and Biblical analysis, arguing that these were irrelevant.

But Bryan, the much-higher profile prosecution co-counsel of Stewart, felt that when the ideas of evolution were applied to human beings, it led to a devaluation of humanity and was the cause of much evil in the world. Being a political progressive and advocate of peace, he was concerned that the theory of evolution was leading to exploitation, injustice, and wars. He was thus eager to argue a much more expansive case and show that evolution was a false and dangerous theory.

The main strategy of the defense was to exploit the fact that the wording in the Butler Act only prohibited teaching evolution that “denies the story of the Divine Creation of man as taught in the Bible”. This provided them with an opening to examine the role that interpretation played in understanding the message of the Bible and to show that more sophisticated interpretations seemed to make the Bible and evolution compatible. This enabled them to also teach about the theory of evolution, to show that that it was true and had the support of scientists, and that teachers should have the free speech right to teach accepted scientific theories without the threat of punishment. This strategy was what led them to request that they be allowed to provide the expert testimony of scientists and theologians.

But in addition to the free speech case, Darrow was also a well-known militant agnostic who thought that Christianity was just a bunch of superstitions and relished the chance to demonstrate the superiority of science and the absurdity of Christian beliefs.

With the two most famous people in the case, Bryan and Darrow, both eager to extend the case not only beyond narrow questions of fact, but also beyond the issue of free speech, it was inevitable that they would prevail and the case would become a high-profile contest between evolution and religion, just as the civic leaders in Dayton had hoped.

POST SCRIPT: The Beagle project

As I have mentioned before, 2009 will be a big Darwin year, commemorating the 200th anniversary of his birth as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. I came across The Beagle Project which seeks to create a replica of The Beagle, the ship on which Darwin made his epic voyage, and recreate the path taken on the original trip, starting in 2009 and ending in 2011.

The trip is not meant to be simply a joy ride. It will also carry out scientific experiments.

From Scopes to Dover-7: The Scopes trial goes national

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Once Scopes was charged with violating the Butler Act and the event publicized, things started moving extremely rapidly.

On May 9, 1925 “the county’s justices three justices of the peace formally held scopes for action by the August grand jury, in the meantime releasing him without bond” (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 95). In mid-May, the 65-year old William Jennings Bryan, who had been campaigning across the nation against the teaching of evolution, volunteered to appear for the prosecution for free, thus guaranteeing the delighted city leaders that the trial would get the national publicity that the instigators eagerly sought. The local civic leaders, eager to get as many headliners as possible involved, even tried to get famous English author H. G. Wells, a supporter of evolution, to make the case for evolution at the trial. They considered that his distinguished literary presence would lend a certain cachet to the proceedings, but Wells declined to get involved (Larson p. 96).

Fearing that other cities, belatedly realizing the business boom that would result in having a nationally prominent trial, would try to take the trial away from Dayton, the local leaders decided not to wait until August for the trial but to move even more quickly. So the district judge, “acting with the consent of both prosecution and defense, called a special session of the grand jury for May 25 to indict Scopes before any other town could steal the show.” (Larson p. 96)

When the eventual lead attorney for the defense Clarence Darrow was initially approached about whether he would defend Scopes, he declined the offer because he had just retired at the age of 68 and was not interested in taking on new cases. But when he heard that Bryan was appearing for the prosecution, the agnostic Darrow changed his mind and offered to appear for Scopes for no fee, relishing the chance to argue, on a national stage, against one of the most visible proponents of religion. This caused some dismay to the ACLU that was underwriting the defense case. They wanted to focus the case on the issue of academic freedom and felt that Darrow’s militant agnosticism would alienate otherwise sympathetic potential religious allies. But Scopes chose Darrow to be his lawyer and stuck with him, feeling that an experienced defense lawyer was better than the constitutional lawyers that the ACLU wanted (Larson, p. 102).

Clarence Darrow was the perfect foil for William Jennings Bryan. Darrow was famous for his successful defenses of several high profile criminal cases but he also “delighted in challenging traditional concepts of morality and religion.” He called himself an agnostic but was effectively an atheist, in which respect he was very similar to Charles Darwin. According to Darrow’s biographer “He regarded Christianity as a ‘slave religion,’ encouraging acquiescence in injustice, a willingness to make do with the mediocre, and complacency in the face of the intolerable.” (Larson, p. 71)

Good intentions underlay Darrow’s efforts to undermine popular religious faith. He sincerely believed that the biblical concept of original sin for all and salvation for some through divine grace was, as he described it, “a very dangerous doctrine’ – “silly, impossible, and wicked.” Darrow once told a group of convicts, “It is not the bad people I fear so much as the good people. When a person is sure that he is good, he is nearly hopeless; he gets cruel – he believes in punishment.” During a public debate on religion, he added, “The origin of what we call civilization is not due to religion but to skepticism. . .The modern world is the child of doubt and inquiry, as the ancient world was the child of fear and faith.”
. . .
Darrow readily embraced the antitheistic implications of Darwinism. (Larson, p. 71)

Since both Bryan and Darrow were itching to square off against each other on the grand issue of science and religion, it was almost guaranteed that the trial would extend well beyond issues of free speech. The stage was now set for the ‘trial of the century,’ which would reverberate and color all future discussions on this topic.

POST SCRIPT: Comedian Lewis Black on Biblical literalism

From Scopes to Dover-6: The Scopes trial conspiracy

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Although Inherit the Wind, the original play and film based on the events of the Scopes trial, was made as a drama, it would have been more accurate to portray the actual events leading up to and through the trial as a comedy.

Right from the beginning, rather than being a bitter adversarial contest between science and religion, the whole prosecution and trial was staged by the local civic leaders of the sleepy little town of Dayton, Tennessee as mainly a public relations exercise, with both prosecution and defense sides working together to create a show trial and thereby benefit the town by increasing its visibility because of the resulting publicity.

When word got around that the ACLU had issued a press release to the Tennessee newspapers looking for someone willing to test the Tennessee law barring the teaching of evolution, Dayton resident George Rappleyea, who personally opposed the anti-evolution law, saw the opportunity to make the sleepy town of Dayton get national headlines and publicity. He felt that this ACLU challenge gave Dayton the chance to hold a trial with well-known figures that would draw the national media and tourists to the city, leading to an economic boom. So he and other enterprising entrepreneurs set about planning to create such a trial. Working with Fred Robinson (a local businessman and also chair of the county school board), the school superintendent (who supported the Butler Act prohibiting the teaching of evolution), two city attorneys who agreed to prosecute the case, and a local attorney to handle the defense, they put all the ingredients into place. (Summer for the Gods, Edward J. Larson, 1997, p. 89-91)

All they needed now was someone to charge with breaking the law. They did not want anyone’s life or career to be harmed by being charged in what was essentially a show trial created for publicity. The team looked around for a suitable candidate to accuse and found one in 24-year old John T. Scopes, a general science instructor and part-time football coach. Although he was not the regular biology teacher, he made a good candidate because he was single, not a local, had no ties to the region, no intention of staying permanently in Dayton, and thus had little to lose from the case. This made him preferable to the regular biology teacher, who was married and was also the school principal and thus would have had a lot more at stake.

In the film, Scopes was arrested in his classroom by grim-faced city leaders while teaching his class about evolution, and then flung into jail where he had to stay until the trial. While there, he had to listen to hostile citizens marching around the jail carrying banners and chanting slogans vilifying him, flinging bottles through his cell windows, and seeing himself burned in effigy, while in the evening the clergyman preached fiery sermons condemning him to hell for his evil act of teaching evolution.

In reality, Scopes was a cheerful co-conspirator in the staged trial. The chummy nature of the whole proceeding is illustrated by the fact that all these friendly discussions took place in the local drugstore owned by the school board chair. The prosecutor, who happened to be Scopes’ close friend, said he would be willing to prosecute Scopes as long as Scopes didn’t mind. (Even during the heat of the trial, the prosecutors and the defendant went for a swim in a pond during a lunch recess.) Scopes was invited to these discussions and asked whether he would be willing to be prosecuted. Scopes believed in evolution and disagreed with the law so he said he was willing to go along. The group then called over the waiting justice of the peace to swear out a warrant for Scopes, and the waiting constable served him the warrant immediately. Rather than being hauled off to jail, Scopes then went off to play tennis while the others set the publicity machine in motion by wiring the state’s newspapers with the news that they had charged someone with violating the Butler Act. (Larson, p. 91)

The little secret behind the trial was it was never firmly established that Scopes had even taught evolution at all and thus actually violated the law. He himself could not definitely recall teaching that particular topic. He never took the stand in his defense and thus was not forced to swear under oath on this issue. He and his students also seemed hazy on the entire concept of evolution. But everyone, including Scopes, decided to go along with the idea that he had taught it in order that the trial could take place. Since Scopes had filled in occasionally when the regular biology teacher was absent, and had used the assigned textbook that included a section on human evolution, this was enough for the friendly gang of conspirators to decide that they could reasonably charge him with violating the law. During the later grand jury proceedings, Scopes even had to urge his reluctant students to testify against him and coached them on how to answer in order that the grand jury would have grounds to indict him. (Larson, p. 108)

Thus from the beginning, the normal antagonism that characterizes the two opposing sides in highly charged trials was absent. It was said that the ACLU, eager to have a test case on the freedom of speech in the classroom, even volunteered to pay the expenses of the prosecution, but the offer was declined. The generosity was not all on one side. Anti-evolutionist William Jennings Bryan had not even wanted a penalty provision inserted in the law since he only wanted to make a point about what should be taught, and did not want to actually harm anyone, financially or otherwise. In fact, Bryan later offered, if Scopes were to be found guilty, to pay the fine himself (unlike in the film, where an outraged Bryan wanted an even stiffer sentence meted out). Everyone fully expected Scopes to be found guilty and even the defense wanted such a verdict so that the case could be appealed to the higher courts and the constitutional issues fully addressed.

The Scopes trial in Dayton was to be merely the first step in a case that was supposed to have much broader implications.

POST SCRIPT: The Chasers ask what should be done about Iraq

In a comment to the previous post, Nicole expressed incredulity that anyone could be oblivious to the infamous history of tattooing people of particular groups for identification purposes. Alas, such people do exist. There are many people out there who not only have no idea of the basic elements of history or current affairs or geography, they also have no empathy at all for people who are not like them, which leads them to say the most outrageous things.

The Chasers regularly exploit this dangerous combination of ignorance and bigotry for humorous purposes.

From Scopes to Dover-4: Bryan’s views on religion and evolution

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In order to understand what happened to Bryan during his testimony in the Scopes trial, it is necessary to understand something of Bryan’s religious views. In those days, as now, there were splits among religious believers between those who took the Bible as an inerrant literal record of historical events, and those who allowed for some level of interpretive license, whereby some events could be interpreted metaphorically so as not to clash with scientific truths.
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